Tiny Solutions, Big Implications

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Class of ’88 | Randy Snurr EAS’88 wants to save the world with chemical engineering and nanotechnology, and he isn’t shy about saying so.

Visit his laboratory website at Northwestern University’s Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, and you’ll find his goal summarized in the opening sentence: “We are researching how nanoporous materials can (help to) save the world.” And when he describes the research on hydrogen storage for fuel-cell vehicles that takes place in his lab, it’s easy to see why he believes it could end up playing a major role in the effort to turn back global warming.

“If we’re going to make fuel-cell cars viable, we’ve got to solve the problem of hydrogen storage aboard the vehicle,” he said during a recent interview in Evanston. “Our approach shows exciting potential for doing that—by engineering new kinds of crystalline nano-structures that will be placed inside a vehicle’s storage tanks. These porous materials will feature greatly expanded inner surface areas, which will allow hydrogen to be stored there in large quantities without having to resort to potentially hazardous high pressure.”

Having spent the past 10 years looking for new ways to improve fuel-cell technology in cars and trucks, the 44-year-old Snurr directs a 10-member Northwestern research team dedicated to designing on-board tanks that can soak up hydrogen fuel like a giant sponge. Their challenge: to use “molecular modeling” via powerful computers to design the crystalline interior of that sponge at the nano-scale level—the almost inconceivably small world of molecules and atoms in which the basic unit of measurement (the nanometer) is only one-billionth of a meter long.

In recent years, nanotechnologists such as Snurr have become adept at moving molecules and atoms around in order to create new kinds of materials that can solve difficult engineering problems.

“One of the most difficult hurdles we face in building hydrogen-based vehicles is simply finding a way to store the fuel,” explains Snurr. The computerized molecular modeling helps them “visualize porous crystalline structures—known as metal-organic frameworks, or MOFs—which will be effective at containing large quantities of the fuel through ‘adsorption’” (absorption along a solid surface area).

During his 15 years as a chemical engineer at Northwestern, Snurr has earned a growing national reputation for pioneering nanotech solutions to energy problems. Along with designing the MOFs for fuel-cell storage tanks, he’s done groundbreaking work in developing “zeolites”—industrial nano-materials that are often used in petrochemical refining and nuclear power generation, among other applications.

Snurr’s pioneering research has earned him both a CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation and a Humboldt Research Fellowship. His Snurr Research Group (funded partly by the U.S. Department of Energy) is today a world leader in nanotech research on new materials for hydrogen storage.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that Randy Snurr knows as much about [hydrogen] adsorption as anybody in the world,” says Alan L. Myers, emeritus professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Penn and the author of Adsorption Equilibrium DataHandbook. “If anybody has a shot at solving the problem of hydrogen storage for fuel cells, it’s Randy.”

“Randy has established himself as a world leader in the simulation of adsorption by metal-organic frameworks,” adds Joseph T. Hull, a nanotech specialist at Northwestern who has worked on projects with Snurr, “and I think he and his team have the potential to help make fuel-cell vehicles a practical reality one day. Randy’s a very talented computational engineer and one of the smartest guys I know.”

A product of small-town Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, where his father was a band director at the local junior-high school, Snurr received “major financial help” in order to attend Penn in the mid-1980s.

“I couldn’t have gone there without the financial aid,” he recalls, “and I also benefited greatly from the advice of Eduardo Glandt [GCh’75 Gr’77, now dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science], who told me I ought to think about going to grad school. Until then it had never occurred to me that I might continue my studies after graduation. Professor Glandt took a personal interest in me and it changed my life.”

After earning a chemical-engineering PhD at Berkeley in 1994, Snurr spent a couple of years doing research in Germany, then signed on as a research professor at Northwestern. He now spends much of his time using high-powered computers to “put together the building blocks of these hydrogen storage materials.

“In a sense, what we’re doing is playing around with molecular Tinkertoys all day long,” he says with a chuckle. “And that’s a nice bit of irony, since Tinkertoys were actually invented right here in Evanston [in 1914].  I guess our approach is a little more complicated, but really, it’s the same basic idea of building structures by linking the components together in imaginative new designs.”

Married to fellow-chemical engineer Liese Dallbauman, Snurr says he spends a lot of his spare time enjoying the “mathematical elegance” of Bach and meditating on the future of renewable fuel-cell energy.

“I can’t read the future, and I certainly can’t tell you if the ‘hydrogen economy’ will someday eliminate global warming,” he says candidly. “So far, there are only about 200 fuel-cell cars on the road in the U.S., and most are demonstrator models. At this point, fuel-cell vehicles are still prohibitively expensive, with recent estimates suggesting they cost about $300,000 each to build. Still, I do think ours is one of the more hopeful approaches for solving the hydrogen-storage challenge right now—and that’s why we’re working on it night and day.”

—Tom Nugent

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